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A Culture of Illness // Christine Li

Certain types of illness have the power to permeate culture. Malaise, fatigue, fear of death - those emotions typically associated with illness - come to be widespread in everyday life, informing its popular art, its ways of speaking, its ways of being. Sontag warns of conflating illness with character traits; cancer, for example, was long associated with repression, the repressed emotion mutating and metastizing internally until it could no longer be hidden. Something grew inside him - resentment, perhaps - like a cancer.

Anxiety now overlays daily life. The symptoms of coronavirus are laughably diffuse and multiple, with diffusion adding to uncertainty - so that we hear of brain swelling, lung damage, headaches, ‘any cold-like symptom’, blurry vision, many of these symptoms lasting for ‘months after release from hospitalisation’. Even those of us who are not sick are urged to ‘behave as if we were sick’, for fear of asymptomatic spread. We are asked to all take on the affect of illness. The main symptom of both anxiety and coronavirus is chest tightness; this appears to be a sinister joke made by a freak. If we were anxious enough, Dan Andrews posits, we would never get sick; if the world and its living hosts were put on ice for two weeks, the virus would die out; yet anxiety mirrors, like a dark parody, the symptoms of coronavirus, spreading paranoia and further anxiety, the cycle turning relentlessly.

Coronavirus colours the ways in which we respond to illness as a whole. Various other illnesses are now assessed by their relation to and overlap with coronavirus - heart disease, lung disease now imagined as almost inescapable precursors to coronavirus - the body is already partly shattered and broken - and the death sentence of co-morbidity. More importantly, though, the edict, ‘Behave as though you are sick’ - while entirely justified from a public health perspective - has had complex effects on the individual psyche. Articles that address the boredom of lockdown, the sheer lack of activity in daily lives, the rise of vivid quarantine dreams at the same time as insomnia sweeps the nation - these speak to the extraordinary power of such an edict, where we have, as a nation, effectively internalised malaise, weakness and fatigue.

The rise in websites such as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic, while long dismissed and critiqued by doctors, has contributed to the view of illness as a mix-and-match of symptoms, but also, in its inverse formulation, the belief that every mix of symptoms can be named and known, that we can always know the certainty of diagnosis. I have spent the last two months with low-grade chronic pain and diagnosis of a virus that may or may not have given me the pain. GPs have given me no answers; tests have come back with no results. I rabbit away my time on these websites, gnawing, obsessive, searching every possible combination of symptoms, comparing each day’s new manifestations, convinced that the pain is mutating, metastatizing, many-faced. Coronavirus has filtered into my way of thinking, my way of experiencing pain - every day, my interactions with others are an obsessive comparison of various symptoms. ‘I’m feeling a little short of breath’; ‘I coughed yesterday, but I’ve been smoking more’; ‘I felt sick after that meal’.

The variety of bizarre complaints my friends have come down with since lockdowns began: chilblains, possible pregnancy (on the back of five months of abstinence), mysterious allergies and rashes - these are biopsied, swabbed, magnified, sent off to distant laboratories, named, categorised, enumerated. My friend at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research spends his days counting cells, magnifying samples on the slide, counting the number of cells in each grid, averaging them, and multiplying over the surface area of the sample. These numbers are bizarre talismans, rising and falling arbitrarily depending on cell reproduction and death. So he counts, and he counts, and he counts again, as if certainty could arise, the sample mean approach convergence with the population mean, reaching some kind of conclusion, some kind of truth, some kind of balm for the suffering mother by the bed.

The thought that one can suffer for no known, objectified reason - i.e. that one can suffer without having a positive diagnosis for coronavirus - feels almost like a waste. One’s pain is not worthy of a name; one can die for no comprehensible, rational reason. An Australian man, 36, presents to a medical clinic in Iceland; after his death he is found to have been infected by coronavirus, but his symptoms were atypical and he did not appear to have died of the virus. It is like the man on the stretcher with the knife in the ribs, but the knife is not the cause of death; the cause of death is in reality a mask for a head without a face, or many faces, many causes, each contributing inexorably to the ticking down of the clock, laughing at our desire for a buxom nurse to ensure forms are ticked and filled and filed accurately.

Much has been written of the fundamental ‘softness’ of the modern child, who has lost her immunity due to lack of pathogen and allergen exposure; swaddled in velvet, the child weakens and wastes away, her natural biome compromised. A parallel argument has been made of death - that we should become accustomed and inured to death if it hadn’t become so sanitised, hidden under white sheets. When my grandfather died in his hospital bed he immediately shat himself and leaked fluid from all his orifices. This did not serve to ‘toughen’ me up, just as I doubt that the Medieval peasant, surrounded by rotting pigs and rats in sewage and dead men hanging, was necessarily more at peace with his own mortality. War, as we well know, is something that happens to other people elsewhere; death does not dare tread on my manicured lawn. Mere exposure (more representation of the dead on TV soaps, for God’s sake!) is insufficient; a hand is extended, in vain, in the realm of and illness; one is alone all one and shall be forevermore.

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